Thursday, 27 July 2017

You are wot you eat

Back at the turn of the 21stC I found myself polishing the cutting edge of science. For a chunk of the 1990s I had the office next door to Ken Wolfe, now FRS, who is almost always the smartest bloke in the room; certainly when I am the only other person there. His contributions to science are many [pubcrawler] and varied [human genome and a Nature paper] and go back to his first Nature paper which predated his PhD. In 2000 Science Foundation Ireland SFI was set up with a brief (and a ton of money) to kick-start Irish scientific research. They solicited applications for grants of several millions of IR£s [soon to become €1.27] in biotech and infotech. Ken secured one of five SFI biotech grants to investigate the human and other genomes which were coming on stream. For reasons that I still find hard to fathom I was given a seat in the new lab along with some super-smart young researchers about half Irish and half foreign. I think I was a net contributor but I had an uneasy sense of Imposter Syndrome [it's not only women] for the 3 years I worked there.

Just as I was preparing to leave (retiring again!) Nora Khaldi a new PhD candidate arrived from Provence. She was young and fit and an asset to the nation of geeks with whom she was going to work. The Celtic Tiger was only starting to growl and the SFI salaries were generous [had to be to attract brilliant minds to an intellectual backwater on the edge of Europe]. Someone decided that all work (and we all worked really hard) and no play made dullards of genius and instituted a series of cultural events for the lab. We were each requested-and-required to book something and everyone else agreed to row in with the suggestion. I brought everyone off the see [subtitles! love 'em] a Belgian film Le Roi Danse about Louis XIV and his favorite composer Jean-Baptiste de Lully. I may also claim credit for suggesting The Burial at Thebes Seamus Heaney's brilliant version of Antigone at the Abbey Theatre. I admit that sounds consciously and pretentiously highbrow but The Lads loyally came out for those events. Nora au contraire decided that the best fun was to pile everyone into a Zodiac inflatable boat and roar off at 30 knots in a tooth-crunching cruise to nowhere round Dublin Bay. I for one left a puddle behind on my thwart which wasn't only from the spray. During her PhD Nora knocked off a bunch of seminal papers about genomic evolution in filamentous fungi which have garnered about 1,000 citations which is definitely above average.

After TCD, Nora went to America - everyone who wants credibility in science has to Go America for a spell - and worked at NCSU on mycotoxins. She developed a pipeline SMURF to analyse fungal genomes for their capabilities in producing secondary metabolites. Secondary metabolites are the bits and piece of biochemistry that don't have direct use in energy metabolism and reproduction.  They are often useful in minimising competition and/or deterring predation. Fungal secondary metabolites have, for example, given us the majority of the current available battery of of antibiotics. In due course, Nora returned to The Other University UCD and in short order dreamed up a company Nutritas which mobilised her computational biology skills and her appreciation that genomes produce a rich array of proteins and peptides whose function is not always obvious.

If oral antibiotics can survive the maelstrom of acid destruction that is the human stomach and go onwards, downwards and then around-and-aroundwards to cure a Staph infection in a child's ear, then what about other microbial products? As CSO [Chief Scientic Officer] Nora [L.L] is talking up the benefits of the Nutritas pipeline of discovering new bio-active peptides. Although she is the founder and the brains behind it, they have hired a Chairman from MegaCorp Novartis to steer the good ship Nutritas through the choppy waters of an unforgiving financial world [I bitterly use a nautical metaphor because of the Zodiac ordeal to which I subjected in 2004]. The nascent company had already appointed a CEO [L.R] from MegaCorp Pfizer in 2015 That's a common strategy in tech startups: you may be a mathematical genius and a dab hand at Python but chances are you will do something dopey like forget to add employer's PRSI contribution when you estimate the burn-rate of your wage-bill.  You start to talk about burn-rate when you secure your first €3.2m tranche of Venture Capital.

 Nutritas has pipelines in anti-inflammatories [diabetes, heart-disease] and anti-microbials [pathogens] which will finish up as targetted additives in your breakfast smoothie. Here she is again, a) talking up the company but b) for the last tuthree minutes talking up solidarity among women in tech. As a metaphor she points out the women are expected to wear different shoes for every meeting where her male CEO just wears shoes. Going foodiceutical is a canny choice; the development pipeline for novel food products is much shorter, cheaper and less challenged by required FDA trials than the development of new drugs. And the market is calling for novel ways to make people well or better still prevent them from getting sick in the first place. In January this year, Nora Khaldi won  the Woman of the Decade in Business and Leadership award. You need bottle to persevere against a tide of know-it-all nay-sayers. “I was told this was impossible and I decided not to listen" attagurl Nora!  Feckin' Bri'nt!  You can talk like that with Nora because she now talks just like a Dub. You'd think she's been raised entirely on bacon-and-cabbage rather than Salade ni├žoise and bouillabaisse. There we go again: another bloke laying his truc on an entrepreneur and visionary just because she's a woman. But I'd do exactly the same to my pal Cedric Notredame, another escapee from Le Midi, if he was able to speak Dublinese half as well. He can't: all he can do is imitate a genuine Dub [Des Higgins] imitating a Frenchman [Cedric]: very funny but you have to be there. Because I only have two pair of shoes [one for work and one for funerals], I don't have a leg to stand on in footwear politics.
But enough of blokes, in science or otherwise:
here's a lot more Women in Science

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